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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

The Job of Your Dreams

Mississippi’s leaders have often boasted that good paying jobs are widely available. Mississippi Today spent several months speaking with job seekers and analyzing the state’s jobs database. We found that despite the political rhetoric, even in comparatively good economic times, getting a stable living-wage job can be very difficult

By Anna Wolfe

JACKSON — Mary White slowly scrolled through emails at the Jackson WIN Job Center, searching for a hospital receptionist application she submitted online. The 58-year-old scanned the webpage, her large, brown eyes downturned behind thick, black-rimmed glasses.

In the eight months since losing her job in summer 2019, White visited the center at least once a week to use a computer. This day, she needed to submit documentation of her job quest to the state unemployment agency, which was auditing her for the third time.

At that moment, White was one of about 78,000 Mississippians looking for work, according to the state employment agency. Job openings in the state reached a high of 55,000 in the first half of 2019, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, still not enough for every job seeker.

White had applied for dozens of jobs, including positions at clothing stores around the Jackson metro area. In Mississippi, retail salespeople earn a median hourly wage of $10.52, far less than the $19 White earned at her old job.

Still, she received no job offers.

“They say that ‘You have good qualifications.’ So why they’re not calling me to come to work?” White asked.

In political speeches, campaign materials and publicly funded radio ads, Mississippi leaders have for years suggested that finding a well-paying job is as easy as the click of a button.

Over several months, Mississippi Today spent dozens of hours talking to job seekers in the state’s job centers, scraping data from the state’s job board and analyzing approximately 1 million data points. The conclusion: For many Mississippians, finding a job that pays a living wage is, in fact, hard.

While the state’s unemployment rate reached a historic low of 4.8 percent in 2018, part of a national trend, Mississippi has seen slower job growth following the recession than almost any other state.

The unemployment rate rose back over 5 percent in 2019 and the overall labor force is smaller today than in the early 2000s, leading to one of the lowest labor participation rates the state has seen in decades.

Benefits of a growing national economy have barely trickled down to Mississippi, where private employees are earning $30 per week less in inflation-adjusted wages today than a decade ago.

Five years have passed since the state launched Mississippi Works, its job search phone app, which Gov. Phil Bryant regularly lauded.

Bryant said during his 2014 State of the State address that the “state-of-the-art” app will “put job seekers and employers a click away from success.”

“I will just say, stand by to be amazed. And I assure you, this website works,” he said.

The number of job openings on the state’s online jobs board, a version of which exists in all 50 states, is one thing. Securing one, let alone one that pays a living wage, is another.

On one day in July, August and October, the median salary for positions on the website was less than $26,000, under the 2020 poverty line for a family of four.

In all but five Mississippi counties in July, there were more people looking for work than job openings on the website*. The opposite is true on the national level, where open positions outnumber unemployed people.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who touted the state’s job-friendly climate as lieutenant governor, picked up where Bryant left off in praising Mississippi’s jobs program and the 50,000 job openings on the state’s website.

“By and large today, we don’t have a lot of people out looking for jobs, we have a lot of jobs out looking for people,” Reeves said in September.

For 19 years, White worked at a medical debt collection agency. A single mother of two, she worked her way up to a $40,000 annual salary, considered close to a living wage for a family of that size.

But her collection performance began to suffer in 2018 when she was transferred from managing delinquent accounts at Jackson hospitals to Greenwood Leflore Hospital, in an area where two-in-five people live in poverty. She was trying to collect money from people, many on disability, who simply couldn’t pay, she said. Later that year, she was fired for not meeting goals; she did not receive severance. 

White didn’t waste any time — she was at the local job center by that Monday.

White, whose first job out of high school was at a YMCA, had used the job center decades earlier. But she had never been a job seeker in the 21st century, when websites and automated email responses replaced printed job ads and telephone calls from hiring managers.

“That’s when I found all the surprises,” White said.

Eric J. Shelton/Misasissippi Today, Report For America

In August, roughly 750 people visited the Jackson WIN Job Center, where recruiters from Continental Tire held an “information session” with applicants.

To get to the Jackson Workforce Investment Network (WIN) Job Center, one of 45 federally funded resource centers across the state, a job seeker must travel to the northernmost part of the city then south on I-55’s Frontage Road.

Isolated and inaccessible from an adjacent neighborhood, the building is located just beyond a complex of yellow self-storage units separated by a barbed wire fence.

Inside, the center greets visitors with a large Whiteboard containing a list of “HOT JOBS” on the Mississippi Works website, such as caregiver, custodian, janitor, front desk, poultry worker and security officer. The website is also where workers must electronically file for unemployment benefits, a federal program established within the 1935 Social Security Act and administered by the states.

The HP desktop computers lining the center’s front wall fill up by early afternoon as users quietly scroll through job listings.

A sign on the wall behind the monitors says, “COMPUTER USE IS LIMITED. TIME LIMIT 30 MINUTES TO JOB SEARCH & MDES SITUATIONS ONLY.”**

When she arrived, White received a sheet of paper with instructions on how to log in, create a password and build a Mississippi Works profile.

“You’re on your own,” White said. 

The federal government established a network of employment offices and labor exchange services, including jobs banks, under the Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933. Although as these services, along with public policy that make them necessary have evolved, funding for the program has remained static since 1984, according to a 2018 report by W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

In 2017, almost 70 percent of the state-assisted job seekers in Mississippi were black compared to the state’s 38 percent black population, and more than one-fourth were labeled low income, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The state’s decades-old jobs database came online under a program called WINGS in 2009; Gov. Bryant rebranded the program as Mississippi Works, which launched a mobile version of its website in 2014.

The app shares the name of Bryant’s workforce initiative, through which he also allocated $50 million over 10 years for worker training. Laurie Smith, former director of the State Workforce Investment Board and a top Bryant aide, testified before Congress in 2018 that the Mississippi Works app “helps move people in low skill jobs to opportunity occupations.”

The number of people served by job-match programs and their success rates vary greatly state to state, where local economies and needs of the population differ. The public labor exchange program serves about 4 percent of Mississippi’s population each year, compared to nearly 13 percent in Wyoming and 1 percent in Connecticut, Labor Department information shows.

The state performs better than the national average for the rate of participants entering and staying in the workforce. It ranks last, however, in earnings of those folks — just $1,700 a month on average in 2015 compared to nearly double that, $3,300, in Illinois.

Mississippi leaders claim no shortage in the state of “good jobs” — those paying at least $50,000 — for folks who don’t have a four-year degree. Officials have erroneously painted Mississippi as a national leader in the growth of these jobs.

But those opportunities are largely absent from the Mississippi Works website where the state directs people — those more likely to lack family resources and built-in networks — to find them.

Just 2 percent of the Mississippi Works job listings came with advertised pay of more than $50,000. Two-thirds of the listings did not specify actual pay, but the employers who listed their wages offered about $23,500, or $11.50 an hour, on average.

“Wage is very important to us. It always has been,” said Allison Beasley, workforce development director for the Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District, during a presentation to members of the State Workforce Investment Board in April. “We have a policy that we don’t fund OJT (on the job training) unless a job pays $12 or more.”

“We don’t want to train people into poverty,” she said.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

On an August morning, Jamal Rule waited for a friend outside the Jackson WIN Job Center after attending an informational session hosted by Continental Tire. Rule hoped to meet with a recruiter, but he did not earn the required score on a career readiness exam.

Mary White began collecting unemployment within a few weeks of losing her job, but she continued struggling to stay afloat.

Mississippi offers $235 per week, the lowest maximum unemployment check of any state in the country. The check amounts to less than $6 per hour based on a 40-hour work week and runs out after 26 weeks. Massachusetts, which has the highest maximum unemployment benefit, offers more than triple that.

“I think they designed it for people to continue to suffer,” White said of Mississippi’s unemployment policies.

After taxes, White’s unemployment check was barely enough to cover her mortgage. She saved her house from foreclosure by signing up for Home Saver, a $150 million federally funded program that pays the mortgages of Mississippi homeowners who have become unemployed or underemployed for up to two years. The program ends this year and is no longer accepting applications.

Even with her housing paid, White had to stretch her check to cover electricity, gas, water and phone bills; groceries; car payments; and gasoline so she could drive to the job center and any interviews. She paid partial bills, enough to keep her services running, and often relied on family and friends to fill the gaps. The only other government help White received was $15 per month in food assistance.

To remain eligible for unemployment benefits, job seekers like White must conduct three job searches, submit at least one application and record them within the state’s website each week. Simply clicking into an online listing counts as a search.

For people with little experience using computers, the process is daunting. Some job center clients have never had an email address and spend hours frustratingly navigating the web.

When job seekers find an opening they like, they write down the listing’s ID number and deliver it to a center employee, who then enters a referral into the electronic database.

White said job center advisers in her younger days seemed to have better networks and personal relationships with area employers.

“Now you’re just filing online, and it’s really a waste of time,” White said. “Everything is done through the computer, and they (employers) don’t get to see your face to go with the name, and all of that makes a difference to me.”

At the time White was looking for a job, the Mississippi Works website stored around 40,000 openings, a number that fluctuates daily as new jobs are posted and others reach their expiration date. Some listings, such as for high turnover positions at Dollar General dating back to 2008, have no end date because employers constantly take applications.

The state touts a feature on the website that sends notifications to job seekers when a position in their chosen field opens up. A Mississippi Today reporter who signed up for the service did not receive a notification in six months.

Mississippi Today found the website often contains information that is out of date or inaccurate. A Mississippi Today reporter watched one job center employee direct clients away from the state website. Most job seekers we observed use private sites such as Indeed.com instead.

A free, public job bank is a benefit to job seekers, said Demetra Nightingale, an Urban Institute fellow and former chief evaluation officer at the U.S. Department of Labor, but “it’s only as good as the employers that are putting the information in and how often it’s cleaned up.”

The National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center at Mississippi State University, where the technology was developed, said by email that employers who list on Mississippi Works choose a “closure date” — which could be years out — or a number of applications they would like to receive for each position. Only when one of those is reached does the listing come off the website. About 10 to 15 percent of the openings are more than a year old, according to our analysis.

Former Jackson State University professor Hari Cohly searches and applies for job on his laptop at his Jackson home. Since losing his job, he’s had trouble affording his utility bills. In the hot summer months without air conditioning, Cohly uses a floor fan to keep cool.

Former biology professor and patent holder Hari Cohly, who was fired from Jackson State University last spring, visited the job center weekly during his application for unemployment benefits. One afternoon, he spent several hours searching on Mississippi Works for an associate professor position, clicking through dozens of pages of sales associate positions that came up in his search.

“When you write ‘professor’ nothing comes up. So, from 12 o’clock to 5 o’clock I’m there. I have achieved nothing,” Cohly said. “I read about 200 of those bloody ads, but nothing is pertaining to the kind of job I want.”

The search bar prompts users to “type a key word and find yourself a Mississippi dream job,” but many job seekers complain the job listings on the website are for low-skill jobs that do not provide much opportunity for a career.

A Mississippi Today review of openings on the website reveal the most common jobs were meat cutters, farmhands and retail supervisors.

There are few job openings in Mississippi for a person with Cohly’s qualifications, which include a doctorate in microbiology.

WIN Job Center employees sometimes advise clients to use workarounds on their weekly certifications. Mississippi Today observed one adviser instruct Cohly to record every job listing he clicked, such as a direct care position at a nursing home he was not seriously considering. The job counselor told Cohly to indicate the employer wasn’t taking applications, even though in this case it was untrue. A website disclaimer states that “providing false information is punishable by law.”

While some private job search engines are more user-friendly than the state’s, many workers face technology barriers.

In the case of Captoria Tatum, an internet browser pop-up halted her job search after it covered the login button on Indeed.com; she didn’t know how to close it. The 66-year-old former hairdresser had applied unsuccessfully to at least 100 openings online in the last year since the Jackson beauty salon where she worked as an assistant laid her off.

More than six months later, Tatum still visits the WIN Job Center, looking for work.

“I don’t like the way I’m treated when I go in. It’s just a lot of condescending attitudes,” she said in February. “Nobody helps you.”

Yet, White, Cohly and Tatum are all counted among the “more than 200,000 job seekers” who “each year look for and connect real-time with jobs through Mississippi Works,” according to the Mississippi Economy Scorecard produced by NSPARC, citing Mississippi Department of Employment Security data.

Asked for the data supporting the claim, Employment Security officials said their agency did not produce the document.

The agency’s annual report shows 185,00 people registered for the Mississippi Works site in 2018; of those, 130,000 were staff-assisted. The agency did not include this information in its latest annual report for 2019 published in January.

NSPARC and university spokespeople have not responded to repeated requests for comment. Employment Security declined on-record interviews for this story. Bryant and Reeves did not respond to requests for interviews.

The state does not track how many people find employment through the Mississippi Works app because the U.S. Department of Labor does not require it, making it difficult to measure the product’s effectiveness. No state watchdog agency, such as the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, has published a report about the tool.

In recent years, the number of people served by the state’s job training partners, mostly community colleges, has been cut in half to 1,297 in 2018, according to the agency’s annual reports. The 2019 report omits the data.

To address shifting needs of the workforce, Mississippi is targeting middle and high school students, encouraging training in skilled trades as an alternative to entering college. In October, the state debuted an educational labor market magazine, called Mississippi Works Magazine, that will be distributed to students across the state.

“Persons seeking employment have a responsibility to develop skills that make them employable and promotable,” Rep. Donnie Bell, R-Fulton, workforce development committee chair, told Mississippi Today. “My focus on workforce in Mississippi is more on the educational needs and skill sets that are needed to break the poverty cycle.”

But Employment Security officials suggest adults who don’t gain those skills before they’re thrust into the job market will be satisfied with any job available to them.

“Those people that don’t have certain types of skills, whatever job that’s available is a good job. It’s a very good job,” department spokesperson Dianne Bell, no relation to the lawmaker, told Mississippi Today during a job fair last summer. “If they can get a job and be independent, that means something to them. So, we’ve never discounted a job, whether its Dollar General or whether it’s Continental Tire.”

If a Mississippi Works user does not have the qualifications for a higher-skill job that may provide a living wage, the website “links you to the community college where you can get the training that you need,” Laurie Smith told a panel in August. President Donald Trump nominated Smith to lead the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau in October, citing her involvement in implementing the Mississippi Works app in the announcement.

But a thorough review of the website reveals this function does not exist. Instead, users receive a notification that simply says, “So Sorry. You cannot apply to this job. See below to find out why.” The agency did not respond to emailed questions about automatic referrals.

“The WIN job center didn’t do anything for me as far as a job to this day,” White said.

Through an in-person job fair or word of mouth, White eventually found a couple of modest-paying jobs, including one at a food processing plant. She couldn’t keep that job as a meat packer, which requires workers spend long hours on their feet and pays an average of $12.23 an hour, due to health problems.

She found full-time employment in December.

After a year and a half without steady work, “it’s probably going to be a little while before I can get things like they once were,” White said.

“I don’t know if I will ever get it back.”

*with the exception of 517 openings that did not contain enough location information to determine which county they were located in. Read more about our methodology here.

**This sign was removed shortly after Mississippi Today published photos of it on social media.

Read Mississippi Today’s methodology employed in reporting this article here and here.